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Book Report: The Long Earth

At the very beginning of The Long Earth (by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter), the plot is kicked off when a renegade scientist puts a schematic for a Device online, and thousands of people—teens and tweens, mostly—build the thing and flip the switch. It’s a simple Device, requiring just some wire, and a box, and a three-way switch, and a potato for power. In the story, it’s made clear that the instructions do not indicate at all what the thing does: there are wires and a box and a switch and a potato, and that’s it. Oh, it’s called a Stepper. The kids don’t know who put it on-line (the scientist had been using a series of false names, as it turns out, but the writers specifically say that it was uploaded anonymously) or what it is, other than a Stepper, but off they go to the hardware store. Dozens of them in Madison, by implication it’s hundreds of thousands all over the world.


OK, first of all: we do not live in a world where thirteen-year-old kids routinely put together electronics from the web. Sure, there are a few kids who are electronics nuts, but they are mostly working from kits. And there are even fewer kids who may have gotten beyond the kits and really be doing their own stuff, but they are doing their own stuff. They aren’t going to look at some diagram on the web with a potato and a three-way switch and think I must make a Stepper today! Vaddevah dat iss! They are going to look at it and think That looks dopey. People are such morons! Soon I will complete my Device and destroy them all, mwahahahahahahahahahahaha! Seriously, hard core wired-up hackers are not, even at thirteen, going to want to copy some random circuits without any obvious purpose.

The plot point felt very Heinlein-y, the juveniles where some precocious kid happens to be a whiz with a slide rule. That kind of thing. A fifties-ish idea of young teens but with the internet. Although, of course, in real life, in the fifties or otherwise, messing around with electronics wasn’t anywhere near as widespread as it was in the imagination and culture. Go to a Radio Shack—“There had been a real run on Radio Shack”—and look for the thirteen-year-olds. Keep looking. Hell, if the local Radio Shack had a run on wire and three-way-switches, I suspect they would have been all over twitter and whatnot long before the kids finished making the things.

Which leads me to my real bafflement, which is that that’s just not how the internet works. I mean, the renegade scientist puts the Stepper plans on-line—where? On his faculty page? On instagram? Wherever. He puts this image on-line and with a few hours, all these kids have seen it already. That’s not how it works. Hell, my eleven-year-old didn’t see the Gangnam video for three months. Nanny filters are set up, among other things, to discourage kids from downloading and then trying out dangerous shit like that. And even among the tweens and early teens who are allowed to surf the internet widely (and those who do it anyway), where are they going to come across the link? Their Facebook wall? Their tweeps? And if somebody did, somehow, decide to retweet and share and digg and reddit this thing, who is going to click on it, out of all the thousands of things so dugg on that day?

It’s just about possible, given the nature of the Device, that after the plans had been sitting largely un-noticed on some web site for five months, that the handful of people who actually knew about it (and had pics so it did happen) could tip it into going viral through some celebrity or other. It would probably go through some educational site that large numbers of tweens could actually use, maybe included as part of a Gamestar Mechanic screen or something. Of course, the moment that happened, there would be innumerable false Steppers on-line, too… A story about how a Device that requires some assembly became a fad among the global youth might be a fascinating story, but it ain’t this story. And that’s fine, of course; Mssrs Pratchett and Baxter wrote the story that really begins after everyone has had Steppers for ten years, and they get to write the story they are interested in. They were pretty upfront about not being very interested in this plot point, and that it’s just there to get the story started.

My problem, though, was that as I was reading the rest of the book, I kept thinking but what about all those tweens making the boxes in the first place? Which, you know, kinda ruined the whole book for me. And I’ve been thinking about why it ruined the whole book for me, and I think there’s a reasonable response: if the writers got this so wrong—utterly and completely misunderstanding how internet memes work, how tweens use the internet, how they spend their free time—all the stuff about how groups react to the now-ubiquitous Steppers is, well, it’s kinda ruined. Even if it doesn’t feel wrong, the bits detailing how one group comes together or another splits apart are still in the shadow of that initial wrongness. And to me, they never come out of it.

Other people don’t seem to have that problem, I should say. Other people either think that bit is just fine or (more likely) recognize that it’s just the setup and move on. None of the reviews I have happened to read even mention that bit. Maybe it’s just a genre convention, I dunno. But it has kept niggling at me, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I haven't read the book, but I feel like there's this notion of "viral videos", where some random weird thing gets a billion views, just by people linking to it. Maybe your eleven-year-old didn't, but lots and lots of people saw Gangnam Style when it first broke onto the scene. Maybe none of those people are tweens and teens, you're saying?

I do agree with the "why would anyone build a random device from a schematic" theory. Remember the coke-and-mentos thing? Everyone was looking at those videos, and doing that, for a while; but that was cheap and super easy, compared to assembling electronics. But maybe that's the idea they want you to have in your mind when you read this.

I recently read and liked http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=17692 and http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=17745, and suspect you might too.

It wouldn't surprise me if this novel was begun in the early days of the Maker Culture meme, the sort of thing celebrated at boingboing.net (and of course Make magazine). At the time, those pushing that culture gushed about how The Next Generation was turning to engineering/hacking projects as an everyday activity (I suppose they're still gushing, but the bright shiny novelty seems to have faded). So one If This Goes On underlying Pratchett and Baxter's book might be that the dream of Mark Frauenfelder really came true.

Jim, I think you may be on to something with the Maker business. Of course, believing the Maker business was a widespread phenomenon also shows a tremendous wrongness.

Irilyth, I should probably write a separate note about why I don't believe in viral videos, but where I think you are right is that there is people believe in viral videos, and that the writers thought that a circuit diagram is Just Like a Video in some way that is utterly unclear to me.


I would hypothesize two things:

1) There's a big difference between how plugged-in eleven-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds are. A bunch of my first-semester high-school freshmen are addicted to Reddit, which implies to me that they're getting a constant feed of all the memes (and news etc) ever. And they came in that way — it's not a new thing they discovered in high school. This kind of project is the kind of thing that is definitely going up on Reddit, if it gets anywhere.

2) Dozens of kids in a single city is not that big a percentage of the population of kids. That's a small group of nerds at each of a couple of middle schools. But it adds up fast. I'm not sure that the math that extrapolates from "dozens of kids in a city with a population of about 200K" to "hundreds of thousands around the world" works, though.

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